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Sunday, 6 May, 2001, 00:28 GMT 01:28 UK
Battle to save Crimea's treasures
Crimean archaeological site
Crimea's archaeological sites are a treasure trove
By Caroline Wyatt in Crimea

The security services in the Crimea are clamping down on an ancient trade - large-scale theft from the region's unique archaeological sites.

It is estimated that at least $2m worth of antiquities are smuggled out of the Crimea every year for buyers in the West.

Some pieces from Greek and Roman graves are even stolen to order for private collectors, while others end up in museums and auction houses.

It makes no sense for me to work as a history teacher when I can make 10 times more by digging

Grave-robber Nikolai
On a windy hillside in the Crimea, officers from the Ukrainian special forces hold their pistols ready as they search the woods.

They have been tipped off that this ancient burial site has once again been targeted by thieves, working under cover of darkness.

For the man leading the operation, who does not want to be named, it is an intensely frustrating experience.

The robbers can afford fast cars for their getaway, while his men struggle to raise the cash for the petrol to give chase.

Buried gold

The lush green land by the Black Sea is quite literally a treasure trove.

Both the Greeks and Romans settled here, and for those who know where to look, their traces are everywhere - from the remains of ancient temples, to the graves with their valuable ornaments.

Empty grave
Grave-robbers are stripping the region of its treasures
For years now it has been a contest between the Crimea's thieves - who dig for profit - and the archaeologists who want to preserve and study the sites for posterity.

Just outside Sevastopol, I meet Nikolai. In his mid-thirties, he is a historian by training, but a grave-robber by choice.

For him, it is mixing business with pleasure.

"It's like a virus - it's so exciting when you dig. The land is packed with the stuff, so my hobby has become my business. It makes no sense for me to work as a history teacher when I can make 10 times more by digging," he says.

The rewards of theft can be huge.

Frustrated archaeologists

The cramped offices of the Crimea's Eastern Institute are crammed with the archaeologists' legal finds - each item painstakingly cleaned and catalogued.

When you come to the place and nothing is left, the history will always remain unknown

Archaeologist Elzara Hayretdinova
Bizarrely, the precious gold and silver belt buckles and jewellery are stored in cigarette packets or old medicine boxes.

There is no money here for anything else, even though the antiquities themselves are worth tens of thousands of dollars.

For archaeologists like Elzara Hayretdinova, the real frustration is that in the time it takes her to find and catalogue, the grave-robbers can pillage an entire site - making it useless for further study.

"Give me a pistol and I'd kill them. When we arrive after they've been - it's devastating.

Archaeologists examine a find
Increasing frustration for archaeologists
"We have to study a huge quantity of material for our research. And when you come to the place and nothing is left, the history will always remain unknown," she says.

The pillaging is not limited to ancient graves. Those of British soldiers who died in the Crimean War are also considered fair game by the robbers, as are German burial sites from World War II.

With such big money at stake and buyers in the West still eager for Crimean treasure, the battle against this ancient trade will be a tough one to win.

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See also:

03 Aug 00 | Media reports
Mafia strikes gold in Crimea
06 Oct 00 | Africa
Stuffed man buried in Botswana
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